Friday 5 June 2015

Halo 2 Review (Xbox)

Life after Halo... is there such a thing? Days blend into months, months into years. You sit looking at your Xbox hoping one day it will all start again. The dust settles and builds as time passes and everything gradually loses its importance; after saving humanity nothing else seems to matter that much. Then it happens: after a few years of silence the threat is back. Time to suit up and save the world once more - the life of a super soldier is never an easy one.

Halo 2 launched with possibly the biggest amount of hype in gaming history. The wait was finally over: Halo 2 has arrived, the shroud of secrecy had been cast aside and the box of unknown delights unlocked for all to gouge themselves on. But was it worth the wait?

If there is one word to describe the thought process behind Halo 2 it is 'impact'. As soon as you boot up to the title screen it casts its familar spell on you. The improved sound and filtering of the orchestral scores float broodingly across the menu screen immediately drawing you into the Halo world. Even for those not grabbed the first time around it is hard to see anyone not gasping at the feeling of intensity and epic quality projected by the truly outstanding musical score.

Creating the feel of an epic is obviously something Bungie had thought a lot about. Cut scenes are now of a much higher quality - showing us far more insight into the backstage workings of the Halo world. While they can be a little over-the-top and catchphrase-heavy, they succeed in turning Halo 2 into a spectacular overall visceral experience, transforming it into much more than a first person shooter and act to push you forward through the narrative.

Many influences for the set pieces and cut scenes have clearly been taken from films. While playing through the title players will often find themselves in situations influenced by Star Wars, Black Hawk Down, Predator, Tomb Raider, Star Ship Troopers, Aliens and many others. This familiarity often adds to the overall enjoyment of being right there in the middle of the action; though it would have been nice if more of the set pieces were fresh Bungie inventions, rather than Hollywood movies re-created with a Halo twist.

Familiarity is present throughout the title; after all there is nothing new in terms of the game engine. Graphics are better, but still could be improved with problems such as textures appearing to fade in at the last second and indoor areas repeating themselves as in the first Halo (though to a much lesser extent).

New weapons have been added, however: though there a more tools for the job this time around, the similarity between many of the weapons means there is less reason to use everything at your disposal. For example, do we really need so many different variations on a rifle? While there are a few brand new weapon types, most fall into the standard sniper rifle / rocket launcher mould. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but like the set pieces a bit more originality would have been welcome.

Here lies the crux of any problem you may have with Halo 2 - we have seen it all before. Everything here is presented exceptionally and the core gameplay dynamic is tight with the dual wielding adding a new aspect of strategy. But there is nothing here that innovates or pushes boundaries beyond the lofty heights of its forerunner, leaving the feeling that the title is more 'Halo 1.5' than Halo 2... but again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, gamers had waited for 3 long years for another game to finally come close to delivering that Halo feeling again; for the sound of dropships overhead; for the frantic charge of vehicles ploughing through Covenant forces; the feel of an intelligent battlefield running its (seemingly) unscripted course.

Though there are faults, to dwell on a few seemingly minor issues is to sour the feel of an epic title. Indeed, the only problem that can really affect gameplay is the occasionally poor enemy AI - even on the Heroic and Legendary settings enemies can seemingly be completely deaf and blind to your presence. The title acts as a highly entertaining journey through the next chapter of the Halo universe and though some levels can test your patience and others turn into checkpoint dashes, when Halo 2 works (which is often the case) it truly is a thing of beauty. In effect the game's numerous highlights show us how the first Halo could have been... with everything we loved about it given more screen time. Concepts and features are fleshed out and expanded, and more tightly focused than before. Many people will have been expecting more - something as ground breaking as the original - but Halo 2 stands up as the biggest, loudest most highly polished and adrenaline-pumping shooter on a console.

It's hard to not feel a little disappointed after all this time due to the high expectations everybody had, but while it may not re-invent the wheel, it certainly refines it past a point not previously seen on a console.

Overall 8/10

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